Toto (or shall we say Harold?), we've got a feeling we are definitely not in Pine Valley anymore. In fact, All My Children alum James Kiberd's (ex-Trevor Dillon) role as a radical Baptist preacher in the new Off-Broadway show The Crusade of Connor Stephens is so utterly powerful and controversial, we're not even sure we're on planet Earth anymore. So buckle up those seatbelts and get ready to dive into some serious Janet from Another Planet territory, because what Kiberd shared with soapcentral.com about his award-winning “despicable” stage role and time in Pine Valley will likely knock the wind out of you... and make you curse the day Uncle Porkchop was found dead in a freezer.
If you've been wondering where James Kiberd has been since leaving AMC back in 2000, you're not alone. After appearing in a couple of short films and other projects, he seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. But it wasn't being thrown in a well like AMC's Natalie that kept him M.I.A. Rather, it was a serious injury that left him unable to work for ten years. And just when he was finally able to start walking again, a script with what he describes as one of the most powerful and interesting characters he's ever read fell into his lap -- and thus, his role as Big Jim in The Crusade of Connor Stephens was born.
The play, which tells the story of a Texas family shaken by extreme loss caused by a tragic act of violence involving a school shooting, will no doubt win Kiberd national headlines and critical acclaim; his portrayal of an abusive, homophobic Southern Baptist preacher is both sickening and awe-inspiring. And he wouldn't have it any other way.
“The way I got the role is a funny story, actually,” he shares. “I got injured ten years ago and I haven't been able to work in ten years. I had another hip replacement on May 9, and I come back to my bedroom in the hospital and there's this script there, and I'm like, ‘What am I going to do with this? I can't even walk!' [Laughs] But my wife, [Susan Keith, ex-Shana Burnell, Loving; ex-Cecile dePoulignac, Another World] said, ‘James, just read it. It came to you, so you should just check it out.' So I read it, and I don't know if it was the drugs or just the power of the play, but it blew my mind. I called my wife and I said, ‘Can you bring me a copy of King Lear, the Shakespeare play?' Because I had wanted to do that next if I ever did anything again, and I wanted to compare Lear to this character. So I read Lear, and then I went back and read this script again, and I said, ‘This character is better than Lear.'”
The realization would have knocked him off his feet, had he been able to stand. So he did the next logical thing: he contacted the director and author, Dewey Moss.
"I said to him, 'Listen, I want to do this role, but I want to audition, because I want you to know what you're going to get, and I want to know what I'm going to get,' he recalls. "But then I said, 'There's just a slight problem: I can't walk.' [Laughs] And he said, 'Auditions are in two weeks; where will you be in twelve days?' And I said, 'I'll be home! That's the first day I'll be home from rehab.' So he came to my door on that day, and I said, 'Would you like some coffee?' And he said no. And I asked, 'Some water?' And he said no. And then I handed him the script that I had ready to go and I started the audition -- no small talk, nothing. And twenty minutes later, he's sitting in my kitchen, sobbing and laughing his head off, and I said, 'Dewey, what's wrong?' And he said, 'James, you have no idea. I've spent the last two weeks thinking, 'How am I going to tell this guy he's just not right for the role?' But you're perfect! So now I've got to ask you why in the world would you do it?!' And I said, 'Because it's the best piece of theater I've read in probably thirty years, it's an amazing play, it's so timely, and I just have to do this role, and I have to see if I can pull it off."
Though Kiberd knew The Crusade of Connor Stephens was something special, he wasn't at all prepared for the power that truly comes along with the stunner play. But he quickly realized just how transformative it is.
“We did it in a festival for three performances, and we got standing ovations every time and sold out every time -- and it's very hard to sell out a festival performance,” he says. “I invited four people to come see it, one of whom was Bryan Cranston [ex-Dean Stella, One Life to Live; ex-Douglas Donovan, Loving], an old buddy. He came backstage afterward and said, ‘James, this is on par with Arthur Miller's All My Sons. It's as good a play. It's a play that establishes the ages, the world we're living in, and gives ethics and morals and rules to live by. It deals with all the issues.' And I said, ‘Would you put some money into it?' And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah I would.' So he was our first investor. And then I waited to see what kind of investment team they got together, and they did a great job. And the thing that fascinated me is I had audience members coming up to me at the end of the show and they would say, ‘You know, I'm a New York lawyer, I've been here all my life, I'm a liberal, and you convinced me with your point of view.' And I said, ‘Whoa...' He said, ‘I don't know how I'm going to recover from this. Maybe in a couple months I'll get back to where I was, but the points that you make are so powerful, that you convinced me of your point of view.' And at that point, I thought, ‘Wow, this is interesting. It's interesting that this play would have this effect.'”
He goes on: "Now it's been picked up, and we're running with it, we're opening with it, and it's hugely exciting. And then, when the elections happened, I went, 'Wow.' Because the play deals with the issues of who is it okay to love, would you kill for your God, what is real, what is truth, what is opinion, right down the line, right in a family situation. It's like binge-watching Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights at the same time. And it's all rolled into this two-hour piece that floors you. It's like a prizefight for the soul of America, is what it feels like. And every day, I've never had a role -- and I've played a lot of Shakespeare's great kings and killers and clowns, and I've played some great roles on television and movies -- but I've never had a role where I read this play every day, and I go, 'Oh, here's another angle. That's another thing. Oh, my God, this is so deep, this is so profound.' And then I watch the news that night, and it feels like it's made of the same cloth of all the craziness that's going on now."
The Crusade of Connor Stephens is massively current; it delves deep into racism and also explores the aftermath of a school shooting. Considering people all across America are emotionally charged at the moment, is Kiberd at all worried about how people will react to his character? And does he feel any kind of fear, taking the stage every night, playing such a controversial role?
"Oh, I am hoping -- and I'm almost in tears right now -- I'm hoping that the people who come to see this are my Baptist brothers. I want them to come and see it, because I do a fine, fine job of presenting that point of view. And I think I would do them proud," he says. "I think America needs to talk about these issues. They will talk about things at a football game or a baseball game that they won't talk about on TV and in the political arena, because everyone is so guarded and protected and they have their point of view. But when you experience life right in front of you, like that lawyer did, you go, 'Oh, my God, I agree with these people! What have I been doing all my life?' You see the other people's points of view, and that's what scares me... But I would love to see people protesting this play and I would like to see them arguing and fighting about it. I think that's what needs to happen. We need to talk about these issues. I think we need to talk about who we are as a country, and I think we need something to point to, like a play, like All My Sons was when it previewed, like the soaps were!"
He continues: "Agnes Nixon wrote the Loving shows that I was in as Mike Donovan. It was the first time we saw someone with PTSD on the screen. And at the same time, they were doing a story about a father molesting his daughter in a very high tone family. If Agnes Nixon were alive today, she would be standing outside the door, waiting to buy the tickets for this show. It's right in line with [her visions]. She had guts. And I think she would have loved this. This show is really dramatic. It's really interesting to see, and I'm very excited to see what people are going to do about it and think about it. But if people are coming to see [All My Children's] Trevor Dillon, they're going to be shocked! They're going to say, 'What?!' But they're still going to love it, because this writer has pulled it all together and you find yourself cheering for the wrong people, which is great. We're all human beings. We all love, we all laugh, we all care, we all bleed, and we've got to care about each other, and that's what's exciting to me about this show. I hope it does get scary."
If you are ever lucky enough to meet Kiberd -- perhaps after one of his The Crusade of Connor Stephens performances -- then it's definitely worth asking him about all of the ties fans sent to him during his stint as All My Children's Trevor. After all, you just may get quite a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
"I have boxes and boxes of them!" he says with a laugh. "I loved creating that character. That was supposed to be a five-day gig, and it went for -- God, I don't know -- eleven years? It was so much fun to play him. And the fans were great. The fans loved him! They were like, 'Where the heck did he come from?!' They were so engaged by it. My first public appearance that I did for that character, the first question was, 'What planet is this guy from?' And that was my goal. It's funny, because we're approaching it, but I had been doing some research and some studying, and I said, 'By the year 2020, we're no longer going to be a white, middle class society. We're going to have all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, and we need to start meeting their values and their ethics and their morals. We need to start encountering them in our world.' And the way I designed Trevor was he was basically this guy who'd been raised and worked in third world countries for most of his life, and those were the ethics and the morals that he had, and those were the things he was bringing to Pine Valley. His way of doing things was more third world than it was first world. I mean, there were some black actors on the show who came to me and said, 'Gotta tell you man, you're the only black man on the show! You get to wear those clothes, and you get to wear those ties, and you get to talk that way.' [Laughs] That's the history we built for him when we first did the character. He was an orphan in Southside Chicago and went off to the military to stay out of jail, and he wound up becoming this third world mercenary, and he comes back to Pine Valley and he basically continues his abhorrent behavior there for a while, but he found a way to fit in. And I encouraged the fans to send me ideas, send me ties, and I guess we raised close to $300,000 for UNICEF with the ties, which was wonderful. That was a rich thing to do."
Considering he has such fond memories of his soap opera days, many of Kiberd's fans would love to see him back in the genre. After all, General Hospital has been resurrecting some former OLTL favorites, and AMC characters are next. But how would Kiberd react to Trevor being resurrected from the dead?
"Whoa!" he says with a laugh. "Wow. I think that's why they never got Susan Lucci [ex-Erica Kane, AMC] and I together; you can't have two engines on a train, you know what I mean? And the shows that are left have their big engines. I was just talking to Peter [Bergman, Jack Abbott] from The Young and the Restless. We were at the memorial service for Bryan's wife's mother, and I was talking to Peter and he's still going strong on The Young and the Restless -- and more power to him! If one of the shows was open to that kind of character emerging, well, it was an awful lot of fun to play him! An awful lot of fun. I loved it, and I had a very strong hand in it."
He continues: "After the first day I was on the show, the producers called me up to the office, and I said, 'I know, I know: I've got to cut the beard and take the earring out, get rid of the ponytail.' And she said, 'No, no, no! Would you be interested in a contract?' And I said, 'Ohhhh, let me think about that. Umm, umm, umm...' and I went home, and my wife said, 'What, are you crazy?!' So I sat down, and I wrote a bio for Trevor. I called the producer and said, 'I'm going to write a little history of the character, what my idea for the character is. Just see what you think of it.' It was 20 pages. [Laughs] So I brought it to her, and she said, 'Oh, my God! Okay, I'm going to give this to the writers and see what they want to do with it.' And she came back a couple of minutes later and said, 'They want to go with this.' And I said, 'That means I'm going to be wearing these clothes, that means I'm going to be listening to this music, that means I'm going to be in this certain way of living,' and she said, 'No, they really want to do it.' So I said, 'Okay,' and that's how it all began. And it was so much fun. And the way I talked, the lingo, the 'Hey doll,' you know, 'Mahatma,' 'pops,' 'Tinkerbell,' 'Uncle Porkchop,' the names that I invented for the characters on the show. We'd be taping, and I'd call Jeremy Hunter [Jean LeClerc] Mahatma, and they'd say, 'Cut! James, you can't call him Mahatma.' And I said, 'Okay.' And we'd get going again and we'd tape, and I'd call him Mahatma! [Laughs] And they said, 'Okay, that's it. We're just going to buy it.' We had so much fun, and it was a very rich and complex environment. I loved it. And doing that every day was delightful."
For more information on The Crusade of Connor Stephens and to purchase tickets, check out the play's official website.
Production photos courtesy of Russ Rowland
What did you think about our interview with Kiberd? Are you intrigued by his controversial character in The Crusade of Connor Stephens? Would you love to see him make a return to the soap opera world? We want to hear from you -- and there are many ways you can share your thoughts.